Stay on the Line’s third season is billed as a 20-minute, single-audience member, immersive theater experience broken into two separate “plays,” with each ticketholder experiencing two of nine possible plays. Having attended their 2018 offering, I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to invite creators/performers Nicole Faust, Whitney LaMora, and Emily Sharp to play with my brain a little more with Waiting – two tickets for me, please!

I sit in the dimly lit Martin event space with sound-reducing headphones on, keeping audio spoilers out of my ears as the current audience member on the other side of the movable wall finishes their experience. It’s finally time for me to return to the mysterious world of Stay on the Line and, much like my previous time with them, I assume I’m prepared for whatever they throw at me. I’m not, but the clever surprises are what makes this company worth visiting over and over again.

The headphones are finally removed, and the moveable wall is opened just enough to allow me into their space. I find myself in a single room with a few unusual objects surrounding me – some of which I will discover their purpose and others that will remain a mystery. The wall closes behind me – I have no idea what’s expected of me beyond not touching the actors, since Stay on the Line does not assault their audience with rules and suggestions of how to interact with the show. While Waiting is not a sandbox-styled event and guests’ actions won’t necessarily change the story in a meaningful way, it’s up to each individual to move the narrative forward through interaction. Curiosity, excitement, and a little dread wash over me as Whatever Shapes the Devils Take begins.

Stay on the Line | Waiting
Photo: Nicole Bitonti

Whitney LaMora enters from behind a curtain on the opposite end of the room and greets me by name. I take a seat as directed and she begins asking a series of questions regarding my troubling sleep patterns – referencing a pre-show questionnaire I submitted a few days earlier. Some sort of response falls out of my mouth as I try my best to match the intensity of LaMora’s gaze, but to no avail.

After gently placing a blindfold on me, LaMora leaves me alone to internalize the musings of the recording she left playing for me – the peculiar soundtrack is enhanced by a strange amplifying device, giving it an ethereal tone as I try to predict where this is headed. I’m told this might be a solution to the slumber I’m so deprived of these days.

The recording ends but I’m not quite cured. I feel a pair of hands remove the mask. Nicole Faust smiles at me and directs my attention to the basket of beautiful gold origami figurines that seem to hold a value to her far beyond what I can see. She wants my help – or does she want to help me? Is this part of the treatment? The intention is never quite clear but the invitation to help her is. Faust gently guides my sloppy craftmanship and reinforces my amateur folding technique to achieve a little masterpiece of our own – I certainly can’t take full credit. It’s nothing compared to the fortune of gold in the basket beside her, but something I can take pride in.

Stay on the Line | Waiting
Photo: Nicole Bitonti

The overhead light colors shift to a softer tone, and the pig-tailed Faust exits the room through the black curtain that gives and takes these performers from me all night. A phone rings in the corner of the increasingly claustrophobic room – the first of many bizarre calls I’ll take on the rotary phone this evening. I answer and listen to the voice on the other end try their best to inspire hope that I will overcome my sleep issues. Once I’m alone and the phone is cradled on the receiver, I pocket my hand-built origami treasure – maybe it will bring me luck and joy like it seemed to give Faust.

Wasting no time, the cast wheels in an unexpectedly large set piece and proceed to form a line on the opposite side of the room. Faust, Sharp, and La Mora wait at the rotary phone in the corner and pay no attention to me. My second play, Escher’s Line, begins.

I take a quick glance around the room and decide the next course of action is to interact with the aforementioned set piece and make my way to the line. It soon becomes clear that, despite how mundane this typical, DMV-like wait appears to be, there is a lot riding on these calls and I should be much more nervous for my turn to arrive.

Stay on the Line | Waiting
Photo: Nicole Bitonti

Escher’s Line, taking place in the waiting room between life and death, was easily my favorite of the four plays I experienced; it exhibited the strengths of Stay on the Line’s minimalist approach. With only two props at the actors’ disposal, they were able to keep the sense of discovery alive throughout the journey to the sobering, and rather wicked, climax.

With no direction or starting point, I took my best guess as to what I’m supposed to do. And then again…and again. Despite a few major missteps on my part, the cast let me play around and discover what I should be doing without stepping in to tell me exactly what or where that is. There is so little guidance I’m curious how far in the wrong direction I could have gone before they intervened…and I view that as a complete win for Stay on the Line. I can’t count how many times I’ve been redirected to get back on track in an immersive show – the freedom to make mistakes and figure it out at my own pace gave an extraordinary sense of discovery and connection with the narrative.

Stay on the Line | Waiting
Photo: Nicole Bitonti

At the play’s end, the cast disappears behind the curtain once again before Emily Sharp, who has yet to say more than a single word, returns with a nervous smile and overstuffed portfolio organizer. Pardon Me features only Sharp and myself (and the phone, of course) to sort through the mess that is about to be my life if we don’t figure out how to get everything in order before the big day. Like Escher’s Line, there is much fun to be had bantering with the cast as the grave-seriousness of the situation at hand is slowly revealed.

Pardon Me required 100% of my attention and interaction in order to move forward, and it still cleverly blindsided me with a twist I didn’t see coming. At this point in the evening, I was fairly comfortable and adjusted to the interaction level of the show, but if Pardon Me was my first play of the night, I might have found it challenging to dive into this level of interaction right away. One-on-one, discussion-heavy, and reliant on me to build my character’s backstory – if coming up with witty replies to rapid-fire questions is your nightmare, this would be hellish. Thankfully, my wheels were greased and ready for the surprisingly emotional and thought-provoking play on the administrational complexities of planning for death…and a phone call. The one thing you can expect.

Stay on the Line | Waiting
Photo: Nicole Bitonti

Everybody’s Got a Hungry Ghost closed out the evening in a surreal fashion, focusing more on evoking atmosphere than a straightforward narrative like the three plays before it. Stay on the Line succeeds in creating a creepy, slightly menacing ambience here, but I was challenged by the lack of direction in this case. What felt like opposing tasks were suggested – stay here and hold this important item that may or may not be the lynch pin of this entire play; release it and answer the incessantly ringing phone; or a third option which seemed like it could be slightly dangerous, which I did not choose. I don’t dismiss that my puzzlement could be the intention of this piece in the first place.

While Everybody’s Got a Hungry Ghost was atmospherically effective and certainly eyebrow-raising, departing from the narrative structure I’d become accustomed to in the previous plays left me with more confusion than closure. Still, I can’t say it was forgettable and by no means a failure of any sort. With a little more focus on what the audience member should/can do, I could easily see this becoming a favorite.

Stay on the Line | Waiting
Photo: Nicole Bitonti

Waiting was fun, endlessly clever, and absolutely inspired. Having seen how much Stay on the Line improved since last year’s Hotel, I wish I could hit fast-forward right now for their 2020 show and buy three tickets for the next round. Don’t be surprised if tickets go fast.

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